Marine safety investigations & reports

Capsize of the landing barge Keppel Trader

Investigation number:
Status: Completed
Investigation completed


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The 16 m landing barge Keppel Trader sailed from Darwin, Northern Territory in the early hours of the morning on 6 August 1995, bound for the port of Wyndham in Western Australia. On board were the Master and one deckhand.

On its deck, the barge was carrying a cargo of materials and equipment to enable it to be put on to a low-loader at Wyndham and transported overland to Lake Argyle. There it was contracted for thirteen weeks, to move equipment and stores during work on the Ord River hydro electric scheme.

The voyage plan was for the vessel to hug the coast, from Darwin to a position near Port Keats where, if necessary, it would anchor and wait for suitable weather conditions before making the crossing of the south-eastern corner of the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf at the mouth of the Victoria River. Strong south-easterly winds were forecast.

At about 0400 on 7 August, the vessel was south of Cape Hay when the Master handed the watch over to the deckhand instructing him to follow a course approximately one mile off the coast. The Master then turned in for a few hours sleep.

At some time before 0700, the Master was awakened by the motion of the vessel and found that it was in rough seas and approximately six miles off the coast, west of Pearce Point. The wind was blowing from the south-east at 25-30 knots and an estimated 3.5 m sea was running. He decided to run with the weather for a while, but after a further twenty minutes turned on to a reciprocal course and headed back into the weather towards the lee of the coastline.

The vessel made no headway into the weather. After a while, the deckhand went down the engine room hatch, situated on the main deck, to carry out engine checks. He had been gone for about five minutes when the barge suddenly developed a loll. The Master left the wheelhouse and when he reached the deck, the barge appeared to be sinking by the stern. A few seconds later it rolled to port and capsized, settling in a stable, upside down, attitude. Both men were thrown into the water.

The Master twice managed to swim to the exhausted deckhand, who drifted away from the vessel, and twice dragged him back to the upturned barge. After several unsuccessful attempts to get the apparently lifeless deckhand up the sloping bow door, the Master, exhausted, let go of him and the deckhand drifted away.

By that afternoon, the owner of the barge, having not been able to make either radio or satellite phone contact with the vessel, flew his own aircraft down the vessel's intended route but did not find the barge. On the morning of 8 August, when Keppel Trader still had not arrived at Wyndham and there had been no communication with the vessel, the owner advised the Marine Branch of the Northern Territory Department of Transport and Works, which contacted the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre and a search and rescue (SAR) operation was initiated.

The Master was rescued late that afternoon by an army helicopter, after spending some 34 hours on the upturned hull and in the water.

Two weeks later Keppel Trader was towed back to Darwin having been salvaged and righted.

Although Keppel Trader is under survey by the Marine Branch of the Northern Territory Department of Transport and Works, it was on an inter-State voyage and thus came under the provisions of the Navigation (Marine Casualty) Regulations.


These conclusions identify the different factors contributing to the circumstances and the causes of the incident and should not be read as apportioning liability or blame to any particular organisation or individual.

The Inspector concludes that Keppel Trader capsized due to the ingress of seas shipped into the engine room after the hatch in the weather deck was left open while the deckhand was carrying out engine checks. The following factors are considered to have contributed directly to the incident.

  1. Keppel Trader was loaded at Darwin in such a manner that the vessel's stability did not meet the criteria of the USL Code Section 8, Sub section C.16 (for landing barges). The effect of the free-surface formed in the engine room bilge was exacerbated by this reduced stability which existed before the flooding began.
  2. No stability calculations were undertaken before sailing from Darwin and the investigation revealed a lack of understanding of the principles of stability as applied in the Trim and Stability booklet.
  3. The weather deck hatch was not marked `To be kept closed at sea' and the practice had arisen of always using this hatch, in spite of the emphasised warning contained in the Trim and Stability booklet.
  4. The internal hatch, which should have been used for access to the engine room under the prevailing conditions, had been stacked with cartons of soft drinks when the vessel was stored with provisions, indicative of the fact that this hatch had fallen into disuse, even in heavy weather.
  5. It is considered that the long-standing defects in the wheelhouse panel temperature gauges contributed to the incident, in as much as the Master felt compelled to check the engine temperatures on the local gauges at a time when the vessel was in difficulties.
  6. Keppel Trader was proceeding on an inter-State voyage and as such came under the provisions of the Navigation Act 1912. No exemption under section 421 from certain provisions of the Act was obtained, or applied for in writing, from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority prior to Keppel Trader sailing from Darwin.
  7. In the opinion of the Inspector, the manning of the vessel was inappropriate for a voyage of the duration of that being undertaken and Keppel Trader should have carried two qualified bridge watchkeepers.
  8. The Inspector considers that insufficient attention was paid to the weather forecasts issued by the Bureau of Meteorology, both before the start of the voyage and after departure from Darwin, in particular the strong wind warning which was current for three days before the vessel's departure.

In addition, the Inspector considers that:

  1. It would have been prudent to have alerted the Northern Territory Police to the loss of contact with the barge after the owner had overflown the vessel's intended route on the afternoon of Monday 7 August and it had not been sighted.
  2. The Master made commendable efforts to save the deckhand following the capsize and the Inspector considers he did everything possible under the circumstances.
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General details
Date: 07 August 1995   Investigation status: Completed  
Time: N/A    
Location: Northen Australia    
State: Northern Territory    
Release date: 16 February 1996    
Report status: Final   Occurrence category: Accident  
  Highest injury level: Fatal  

Vessel details

Vessel details
Vessel Keppel Trader  
Flag Aus  
Type of operation Landing barge  
Damage to vessel Substantial  
Departure point Darwin, Northern Territory  
Departure time N/A  
Destination Wyndham, Western Australia  
  Crew Passenger Ground Total
Fatal: 1 0 0 1
Total: 1 0 0 1
Last update 19 May 2016